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I Always Start With the Voice of the Character: a Conversation with Lisa Cupolo

I Always Start With the Voice of the Character: a Conversation with Lisa Cupolo

Lisa Cupolo’s debut book, Have Mercy on Us, won the W.S. Porter Prize for short story collections. The ten stories are a rich exploration of people continually seeking, wrestling, and walking the line of great tension in their relation to others, and also within themselves. There is an abiding sense of hope and mystery as well as an unflinching portrayal of the simple and complex human impulses. The stories are luminous in their ability to capture quiet sensibilities and reveal what lies at the very heart of living. Cupolo’s writing is magnificent, a sheer pleasure to read, and the pages sing one astonishing possibility to another. Lisa and I spoke over email to discuss characters and place in her stories, researching on and writing in the voice of Zora Neal Hurston, her best writing advice and more! 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tryphena Yeboah

Congratulations on winning the W.S. Porter Prize! It’s so wonderful that your debut collection has received such recognition. I read the stories with such eagerness, as though I were opening a gift. Very soon the book will be out in the world. How are you leaning into all this? What has been the most exciting and challenging part of this experience?

Lisa Cupolo

Thank you. Your enthusiasm and unique insights about Have Mercy On Us bring me joy.  It has been so interesting to be on the writer end of things. As you know, my husband is a writer and I’ve been the trailing spouse for a long time, whenever he’s been on a book tour or at events. I’m a glad cheerleader for him and for my friends, many of whom are writers too. That’s sort of my nature to be supportive and enthusiastic. Ha. But I’m happiest listening to others; my curiosity in people is where I get the best seeds for new stories.   

I believe in my work and I’m thrilled about the award. A real dream come true for me and I am truly grateful. I must confess it makes me a little uncomfortable doing the publicity required to launch a book these days. In the 2000’s I worked as a publicist at HarperCollins in Toronto, promoting many well-known writers. In fact, that’s how I met my husband. So I know well what is required to make a book successful and I can tell anyone else what they might do to advance the cause for their book, but it’s another thing entirely when I have to do it myself. I do love working through how exposed I feel in these situations and it’s such an opportunity for me to grow spiritually.It’s great to hear from readers across the country about my book. So I’m thinking about all of that and the balance required.  

Tryphena Yeboah

I appreciate your honesty about the publicity bit; it is rather tasking. You wrote and set many of these stories in Toronto, London, Kenya, and other different places. Can you share one special memory from any of these personal landmarks and how you have come to regard the sense of place in your work?

Lisa Cupolo

I usually get inspired to write a story by an image or a slice of dialogue I hear in daily life. I believe each day is a drama waiting to happen, good or bad, that none of us can anticipate and that’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. Something as simple as going to the supermarket can bring fascinating exchanges or instill thought-provoking images. 

I’ve been lucky to live in other countries and I set many of my stories in these places. I notice my senses are heightened to a greater degree when I’m abroad because nothing is habitual or known. The expatriate life has suited me because of the excitement that comes from being a foreigner.  The idea of discovering the streets of a new city or falling in love with the people and culture of an unknown country is dazzling to me. Your awareness becomes sharper, and nothing is taken for granted. I’m Canadian but I live in Southern California now and even though there are many similarities to my life in Toronto I’m constantly aware that the US is not my country, that I’m not home and I love the edginess that can bring to my days. It reminds me that life is uncertain and stability is something we fabricate in our minds. We are all groundless, all the time. 

I remember being in a bakery in Kisumu, Kenya. My boyfriend at the time and I had walked two miles on dirt roads to get to the internet café to check our email, back when cell phones weren’t a given in East Africa. Next to the internet café was the bakery. I see the display window with the baked goods and breads, something that was a big treat to us when our diet was beans and rice. I remember feeling shattered and worn out after a long day at the Pillars of Faith orphanage where we both worked and lived. Standing there in line waiting to order, the boyfriend and I argued over which loaf of bread to buy. I wanted a savory dark loaf and he wanted the sweet challah twist. Of course the fight over the bread was only the mud on the floor, as my mother would say, as the real conflict was that we’d drifted apart from each other and we were hanging onto the relationship by threads. I don’t remember what loaf of bread we ended up buying but I wrote in my diary that night about what a failure I was. Here I was a humanitarian worker during the horrific AIDS pandemic where boys carried coffins down the road while the boyfriend and I walked to town, and we couldn’t even get along.  

That memory really stayed with me. So I wrote the story “Bread” about a couple of American NGO workers having a similar fight in a bakery, but added the fact that the narrator in the story is pregnant and she hasn’t told the boyfriend yet and she is carrying this secret with her, and that makes it more interesting. The stakes are higher for both of them. There is the thought that we write ‘with our experiences instead of directly about them.” I do that a lot, and it’s the best course for me. Of course, by the time I’d finished the story “Bread” it looked nothing at all like the relationship I’d had personally.

Tryphena Yeboah

Whenever I tell people what your book is about, I often say it’s about women and more women. A silly answer maybe, but what you’ve given us in these stories are the different layers of what it means to be one at varying stages. Each character, with her distinct circumstance and often unfavorable conditions, seems to have a level of perceptiveness to them, a kind of quiet ability and astute self-awareness that can so easily be overlooked or mistaken for something else. Why was it important to capture strength and power in such subtle, unpredictable ways?

Lisa Cupolo

It’s interesting you say all of this about the strong women in my stories. I’m proud of the women I’ve written but I take care to have the same range of men in my stories. There is the philandering husband, there are the absent fathers, but I also think there are some good men as well. I guess it’s important to me to showcase the complexities of women, but also men.  

I was ill in my teens and twenties and spent a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms and benching it at school dances. I gathered a lot about people from watching them. I became an observer and imagined what their lives were like and how they might have set up their rooms at home and if their parents fought or kissed each other passionately in the kitchen. It’s a stereotype that adversity in childhood makes good writers, but I know that I relied on my imagination to escape, a kind of survival against what was happening to my body. 

When I’m writing a character I want to convey what the character is feeling more than what the character is thinking, if you know what I mean. People say one thing and mean another, myself included and that’s so interesting to me. So much of life is putting on a face, a good face, at the office or at a fancy dinner or at the dentist’s office, we do what’s expected of us yet inside our heads and hearts something else is going on entirely. I love stories because you can see both what is presented between two people, in dialogue, for instance, but the beauty is you get the narration about what’s going on in a person’s head. Often that creates the a-ha moment for the reader who recognizes themselves in these same predicaments or has the same dualistic feelings and it makes a reader feel a little more tender towards themselves and a little less alone in the world. Or that’s the hope.

In the title story,Have Mercy on Us,” a grandmother who is fiercely protective of her daughter has a boyfriend who is obsessed with buying fancy clothes for her toddler grandson. The character, Franco, is pivotal to the story because he is such a kindly man and in some ways he is the hero of the story because he is able to reflect his girlfriend’s ugliness back to her because of his warmth. The title is a biblical reference but it is also a tribute to one of my favorite Chekhov stories called “Gooseberries,” which has a similar character who delights in the simple pleasures of life. 

Tryphena Yeboah

Oh, thank you for drawing my attention to the men as well. I was so taken by the women’s presence and interiority that I almost lost sight of who they were often in relation with, which is just as important. As a reader, I tend to hold on to first impressions of characters and you have some striking ones. In “You’re Here Now,” Sylvie is on the way to the funeral of her father, whom she’s never met. When we first meet Akinye in “Bread,” she has just discovered that she is pregnant. There are many instances where you begin this way: plunging the reader straight into some kind of revelation, steering them into a tension of a seemingly harmless decision through which the rest of the story unfolds. I’m sure it varies, but when you present characters in such defining moments, what do you most seek to capture about them?

Lisa Cupolo

I try not to have any intentions when I start a story. I always start with the voice of the character. It’s always the voice for me, creating a character the reader wants to keep following.  Conflict is the next most important thing to me. What is the character up against? Who broke them? What do they want? All of that has to be set out quickly and effectively.  It’s all a matter of time management in a way. It’s like magic getting a story right, a puzzle and there are a million ways to arrange the words but only one perfect way and the magic is that the writer knows when they find that word. I tell students that every line has to either add to the conflict of the story or develop the character. That’s the fun of editing over and over and over again, widdling and rearranging until the story starts to emerge, tighter and tighter and more powerful with each edit. My stories have been called staccato in their delivery and I think because I spend so much time editing, there’s not a lot of extra fat on them.

Tryphena Yeboah

See Also

I’m glad you mentioned this; it reminds me of James Baldwin’s words about simplicity and stripping off the guises to write a sentence “as clean as a bone.” Now I am sure from my excitement with talking about “Fort Pierce, Florida,” it’s obvious this is one of my favorite pieces in the collection, hence this loaded question. The protagonist is developed after the remarkable writer Zora Neale Hurston, and you deliver her character’s voice and sense of agency in an extraordinary way. How did this story come about and what was it like writing from this perspective? Did you feel any pressure to represent Zora in a particular light and what was that like? 

Lisa Cipolo

Writing in the voice of Zora Neal Hurston was bold of me. I would never do it now in this climate of cultural appropriation. But when I started it I was in Memphis at graduate school getting an MFA in creative writing and studying African American literature. I’d come to Memphis from Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world and I’d lived in London, Nice, France and in Kisumu, Kenya, and travelled widely. I felt as if I was in a time warp in Memphis. When I walked into my first comp class the black kids sat on one side of the room and the white kids on the other. 

I was shocked and it made me endlessly fascinated with the cultural history of the American South and African American literature. 

I took every African American literature class offered and in one class I begged the professor to let me write something creative instead of a critical essay that I felt incapable of writing. I was very pregnant at the time and I remember feeling wild and vulnerable in the unique way that only a pregnant woman can feel when another human is growing inside of her. 

I had been reading all afternoon, and of course Zora Neale Hurston’s life had been part of my obsession and I remember exactly where I was in my apartment when I read that she’d worked as a maid at a motel in Ft.Pierce, Florida. I was so mesmerized by this idea and I just imagined what it would be like for such a brilliant woman to have to work at that kind of job to pay the rent. Zora Neale Hurton!

We know, of course, that she died with nothing. It just made me understand how unfair and at the same time insignificant fame can be. I thought of her meeting a young writer in one of the motel rooms she cleaned, a young male writer I thought, who saw himself as the real deal. Then I just went off with that idea and wrote voraciously.

The story seemed to write itself because my mind had been so full of what I’d read about her and from the books of hers I’d read. It was as if her voice was echoing in my mind. It was a powerful experience. I think it does stand out in this collection as it’s just such a different voice. 

Tryphena Yeboah

Bold seems like the right word for this act, although I’ll admit much of the artist’s work demands some kind of courage to show up, to imagine and experiment, and to risk failure every time. I’ll end on a lighter note: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Lisa Cupolo

Lower your standards and keep going! The most important thing to do is to write, and if you’re really stuck, get the words down. If you’re truly stuck, pick up one of your favorite novels or story collections, the one that you wished you’d written yourself, and start reading. Soon you’ll be inspired to get back to your character. If all else fails, put both feet on the ground, shut your eyes and breathe, let all the worries drift out of your mind. Stay that way as long as you can. Then open your eyes and get back to work! 

Have Mercy on Us
By Lisa Cupolo
Regal House Publishing
Published January 24, 2023

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